Written by Rob Clarfeld for Forbes
Americans are a generous people, giving away more than $410 billion in 2017, according to Giving USA, with more than 70% of that donated by individuals. Most people express their philanthropic desires by writing checks to the various charities that are important to them. Certainly direct giving is easy and convenient, but often lacks tax efficiency or a longer-term strategic focus.
For individuals and families that want their philanthropy to continue for generations or are concerned with income tax minimization efficiency, alternative options to direct giving include setting up a private foundation or contributing to a donor advised fund (DAF). There are positives and negatives to each.
Building a Legacy with a Private Foundation
For those with multigenerational wealth and the desire to leave a lasting legacy, a private foundation offers a lot of benefits. It adds prestige to the family name and can teach future generations the importance of being charitable and contributing to society. A private foundation also gives the donors total control over which qualified charities receive grants. Family setting up a private foundation can control the succession of trustees and board members for as long as the foundation remains in existence.
On the downside, private foundations are more complicated than DAFs. They require time-delaying filings and other paperwork to establish them, and there are upfront legal fees and annual maintenance costs for the required tax filings and recordkeeping. Private foundations also are required by law to distribute a minimum of 5% of their assets annually and must pay an annual excise tax of 1-2% of net investment income. Generally, those opting for private foundations endow them with a significant contribution and have multigenerational charitable intentions.
Let Someone Else Handle the Hassles
Conversely, donor advised funds are established immediately and at no cost, which explains their growing popularity. Most brokerage custodians—Fidelity, Schwab, TD Ameritrade, etc.—can have DAFs set up and running the same day. Once they are established, the fund sponsor handles all administrative functions. The tax benefits from donations to DAFs also are superior to that of private foundations. The limitation on deducting charitable donations (as a percentage of adjusted gross income on one’s tax return) is the same as for direct giving, 60% for cash donations versus 30% for private foundations, and 30% verses 20% for donated securities. Also, there is more privacy around DAFs, compared to private foundations that can be researched in publicly available databases, which often creates a flow of unwanted solicitations. As stated above, DAFs don’t pay an excise tax on investment gains.
A consideration that I’ve found to be more theoretical is that unlike a private foundation, although DAF donors advise on potential grants, the sponsor has the ultimate authority to approve or deny recommendations. There are also restrictions on what types of organizations are eligible for DAF grants.
Bunching of Deductions
The overarching benefit of both private foundations and DAFs is the ability to control the timing of when you receive a tax deduction and when charities receive funds. This can make a big difference in a year when one has an exceptionally high income – large bonus, vesting of restricted company stock, sale of a business, or winning the lottery – when charitable deductions are of greater value, and its beneficial to spread out payments to charities over several years. Both vehicles allow the deduction in the year you gift to the vehicle, while the charities receive the funds in the year you choose. Further, the recently enacted tax law, Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, may make the “bunching” of tax deductions into a single year adventurous for some taxpayers (See: Preserving Tax Benefits For Charitable Contributions)
Whether the desire to do good results in simply writing a check, contributing to a DAF or setting up a private foundation, maximizing the tax benefits of charitable contributions can be complicated and should be discussed with your tax or financial advisor.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ROB CLARFELD
Rob Clarfeld is founder of Clarfeld Financial Advisors, a leading wealth management firm with offices in Westchester, N.Y., and New York City that provides comprehensive financial and estate planning, sophisticated tax and compliance expertise, and investment management services. Rob is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Financial Planner® and Personal Financial Specialist with more than 30 years of experience advising financially successful families and family-owned businesses. With a focus on robust and individualized family office platforms, Rob has been Barron’s #1 Independent Wealth Advisor in New York for nine consecutive years, and is the #1-ranked New York independent advisor on the Forbes Top Wealth Advisors list. To find out more, visit: clarfeld.com ** Please Note: Rankings and/or recognition by unaffiliated rating services and/or publications should not be construed by a client or prospective client as a guarantee that he/she will experience a certain level of investment performance.
The closer details of charitable deductions on taxes only matter if a person is itemizing deductions on their tax filings. If so, you are able to deduct contributions up to 50% of your adjusted gross income when they are made to qualifying 501(c3) entity or other qualifying organization. Some organization types only qualify for a 30% limitation private foundations, others qualify for a 60% limitation (federal government units).
If you’re concerned with the tax-deductible status of your donations, you may request verification from the charity of your choice (ask to see a copy of their latest IRS 990 or a copy of their IRS 501(c)3 determination letter). You can also use irs.gov or guidestar.org to search for documentation.
What can and can’t be deducted?
In order for a donation to be deducted, it needs to be truly charitable. No goods or services can be received in exchange for the donation that is considered tax-deductible.
If you attend a charity dinner and paid $500 for your ticket, you’ll need to find out how much was spent on the meal and beverages you received because you are only allowed to deduct the amount that exceeds the cost of your event attendance. Similarly, charity concerts, golf outings, and auctions are all types of events when your full donation amount may not count toward your charitable donation. You may pay $500 to play in a charity golf outing but find out that the charity spent $300 per player for gifts and greens fees. In this case, you would only be able to deduct $200, not the entire $500 you spent.
It is up to you and your accountant to determine this amount by coordinating with the charity. If the charity is doing their job correctly, they will make it easy for you by adding it to the gift acknowledgement. For example, it should read: “$100 contributed. $60 total deductible donation after receipt of goods and services.”
Do people need to keep track of receipts?
Everyone should keep careful track of charitable contribution receipts, just as they would any other household or business expenses. Most nonprofits have a donor database system to keep records on gifts though and should be able to print you a new one should you lose yours. Some nonprofits will mail out a statement of giving around January or February each year which will include a complete history of your giving for the year – this document can be used for accounting purposes in place of the receipts of each individual gift you made to them that year.
Blackbird Philanthropy Advisors Featured in Cheapism Article on "How to Get Tax Breaks Through Charitable Donations"
GET TO GIVING
As the clock winds down on 2018, many people are scurrying to make their final charitable donations of the year and tally up ones already made. In 2017, Americans gave $410 billion to charities, an increase of five percent over the previous year. For those looking for ways to make the most of charitable donations before the end of the tax year, here are some tips and insights from experts around the country.
KNOW THE NEW TAX LAWS
Under the new tax laws recently adopted, the standard deduction for filers has roughly doubled. It’s now $12,000 for single filers, $18,000 for head of household, and $24,000 for joint filers. Those increases will likely have a profound impact on people’s interest in making charitable donations. “If you’re taking the standard deductions, you cannot itemize,” explains Mark Charnet, founder and CEO of American Prosperity Group. “That’s going to horribly dissuade people from making charitable donations. Unless they itemize on their taxes, they will not get a reduction on their tax bill for the charitable contributions and therefore will be disincentivized to make donations.”
KNOW HOW MUCH YOU CAN DEDUCT
The law generally allows for deducting contributions up to 50 percent of your adjusted gross income, when such contributions are made to qualifying 501 (c)(3) entity or other qualifying organization, explains Caitlin Worm of Blackbird Philanthropy Advisors in South Bend, Indiana. “Some organization types only qualify for a 30% limitation, such as private foundations, while others qualify for a 60% limitation, such as federal government units,” says Worm.
RESEARCH WHERE YOUR MONEY WILL GO
If you’re planning to donate to a non-profit organization, otherwise known as a 501(c)(3), find out how your contribution will be used. How much will go toward the cause and how much goes toward administration? A variety of third-party evaluation and ratings sites can help with this effort, such as the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, and Charity Watch, which review a charity’s finances, governance and effectiveness. “Better ratings will indicate that the organization allows for the majority of the donations to go right to the cause,” says Jacob Dayan of Community Tax.
Many people wonder if their volunteer time at a charity completing professional tasks can be deducted on their taxes. You cannot deduct the value of services rendered in volunteer service to a nonprofit. You can, however, deduct the expenses you incurred while volunteering or traveling to and from the volunteer assignment.
Example 1 - The Artist:
An artist who paints a mural on the wall of her local local Boys & Girls Club can deduct the cost of paint, paint brushes, and other supplies needed to complete the mural. She can also deduct the gas mileage it took to get to and from the charity to complete the volunteer service. She cannot deduct for the time it spent her.
Example 2 - The Nurse:
A Red Cross volunteer who is a Registered Nurse travels to Florida to help with hurricane disaster relief recovery. He can save the receipts for his airfare, lodging, and meals while on assignment. He cannot calculate the hours he spent working as a nurse for Red Cross and deduct the pay he would have been paid in his workplace.
Always consult with your tax advisor to be certain.
Many people wonder if it makes sense to donate property, cars, or other valuable items to charities in order to receive a tax donation.
Nonprofits are chronically short on cash and always in pursuit of seeking full sustainability. Of course, most charities will accept donations of all kinds but sometimes donations can be more of a hassle than the net benefit. There are horror stories of benefactors donating property, jewelry, art, or cars to a nonprofit where it took more staff time to sell and manage the goods than they received in net contributions. Make sure your donation will be an easy and manageable transaction.
If a charity uses your property, car, art, or valuable items to carry out their programs and services, you may be able to deduct the full “Fair Market Value.” However, you may need an official, written appraisal. If the property, cars, or valuable items are worth more than $5,000 you will need a written appraisal from a qualified appraiser.
On the other hand, if the charity sells your property, car, or valuable items for less than your appraised value, you may only deduct the amount the item was sold for, not the pre-determined market value. Example: If you donate a car to Boys & Girls Club for the estimated value of $3,500 in August but they were only able to sell it for $3,000 in December – then you can only deduct the final sale value of $3,000.
Veer over to the IRS website to learn more before making your big donation:
A Donor's Guide to Donating a Car
Determining the Value of Donated Property
Feel free to reach out to us if you have additional questions or need us to translate some of the IRS technical language. We're also happy to review your pledge and give you guidance on the best course of action.
Blackbird Philanthropy Advisors is a social enterprise devoted to Driving impactful and innovative change through philanthropy. Based in South Bend, Indiana, USA.